Richard Smith: Can fiction save us from climate catastrophe?

richard_smith_2014After reading John Lanchester’s chilling dystopian novel The Wall about how the world will be after climate catastrophe I had the unsettling sense for several days that the world he describes is the real world and the world I’m inhabiting now the sham. We fly around the world, queue at the butchers, drive our Range Rovers, turn up the central heating, text our chums, have more children, and watch rom-coms on giant flat screens as the world literally begins to burn and flood.

The Wall, where “news any news is bad,” surrounds Britain after the Change and keeps out the Others. There are no more beaches, and it’s intensely cold on The Wall. (A likely consequence of climate change is that the Gulf Stream will divert and Britain become as cold as Alaska.) The Defenders, of whom the novel’s narrator is one, must spend two years on The Wall and must kill the Others or be killed. If Others manage to get into Britain then an equivalent number of Defenders are put to sea—that is, become Others. Everybody has a chip in their bodies, and to merge into the population Others must quickly find somebody to insert a chip. If caught, as they are likely to be, Others have the choice of being put back to sea, euthanised, or becoming Help. Help are slaves. Most Others who are caught chose to become Help. The Elite, who go to “conferences or talks or meetings” and have “big discussions about the Change,” (that’s me) have Help.

In an interview in the Guardian Lanchester quotes William Gibson’s famous line that “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed. Walls are very much part of our world, and an argument over a wall, a big “beautiful” wall, has shut down the American government. Migrants, let’s call them Others, are crossing and drowning in the Mediterranean—and now are coming closer, crossing the English Channel. Every day in Britain—and many other rich countries—the Others become more Other. In the novel it’s government policy to shoot them, and it doesn’t require a big imaginative leap to that becoming policy now; already there are many who favour not rescuing drowning migrants for fear of encouraging others. A politician in the novel deplores that there are people in Britain who take the side of the Others, “not of the ordinary decent people of this country.” This is the language of the Brexit crisis. Many of the migrants who are resident in Britain are already Help: my mother’s nursing home with mostly white residents and black staff makes me think of Apartheid.

The Defenders are young people, and all young people, men and women, must serve on the wall—apart from the young Elite. The Wall becomes their life: “I realised that even though I was on the Wall, a part of me had been assuming there were still small human margins here and there, room for interpretation, space for forgiveness or acceptance or, less nobly, the chance to talk yourself out of any trouble you might have got yourself into. I now saw that that was wrong.” The Defenders feel cut off from the rest of the world, unable to communicate the horrors of The Wall. That made me think of First World War soldiers, and the drunken behaviour of the Defenders as they started their fortnight’s leave is to be seen today among young soldiers who have completed a tour of duty.

People in the novel don’t want to have children “because the world is such a horrible place.” The main reason to become a Breeder is to escape the full horrors of The Wall. There are people now who refrain from having children for fear of what the future will bring, and I feel pain about my grandchildren for the failure of my generation.

Most BMJ readers will not have to serve on The Wall, but their children and grandchildren will. This will create a huge generational divide. Joseph, the narrator, finds he cannot feel anything for his parents, who keep their distance: “The diagnosis [of the parents’ shame] isn’t hard—the diagnosis isn’t even controversial. It’s guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt. The olds feel they irretrievably fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everybody knows it…. Who broke the world? They wouldn’t say that they did. And yet it broke on their watch.”

Lanchester doesn’t give dates in his novel, but this future may not be far away. In the Guardian interview he says: “In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.” The same goes for the environment. We have known about global warming for 30 years, but have failed to mount an adequate response. “We have an amazing talent,” says Lanchester, “for being oblivious, we are really, really good at it.” British politicians, enmeshed in Brexit, tell us that it is the most important political question of their generation, but of course it isn’t: Brexit may create chaos and exacerbate poverty, but it won’t cause extinction of our species.

Perhaps The Wall, which is already in the bestseller lists, can create an emotional response to climate change that government and scientific reports and statistics have failed to do. George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner, in 2008 called Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road “the most important environmental book ever written.” That novel was further in the future than The Wall and more extreme in that there were only small bands of people left roaming a burnt out land and resorting to cannibalism. Perhaps Lanchester’s novel will have more impact by being less extreme and so cleverly relating the future to the issues of today.

In an article in the Financial Times Lanchester writes about the two great dystopian novels in English—1984 and Brave New World—and shows how despite being written some 70 years ago both tell us much about today.  George Orwell and Aldous Huxley wrote their novels in the hope of stopping their dystopias becoming true. They failed. “My main ambition, my main hope for the book,” says Lanchester, “is that I’m wrong.”

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.